U.S. Women's Open: Winner Jeongeun Lee6 makes a name for herself
CHARLESTON, S.C. -- Jeongeun Lee6 has a numeral at the end of her name, a common one in a country with an uncommon excellence for golf.
There were a handful of Jeongeun Lees playing professional women's golf in the Republic of Korea when she joined the Korea LPGA Tour in 2016. She added the number to her name to differentiate herself from the others.
What Lee6 did Sunday at the 74th U.S. Women's Open will do much more than that exercise in branding. On a day at the Country Club of Charleston that tested what a golfer is made of, Lee6, who wears the logo of a Korean construction company on her cap, showed that she is built of sturdy stuff.
In a final round in which most of the contenders struggled -- missing greens with wedges and putts from close range -- Lee6 played in the manner of other South Koreans who have found success in the oldest major championship in women's golf: resolutely and calmly, with the tempo of her textbook swing beautiful from first hole to last.
A bogey on the 72nd hole gave Lee6 a 70 and 278 total and put her two strokes ahead of Angel Yin, So Yeon Ryu and Lexi Thompson.
"Six" finished 6 under par to win the $1 million first prize, which should assure that six remains her lucky number. Lee6 is just the third U.S. Women's Open winner in the past 25 years to shoot four rounds under par, joining Juli Inkster (1999) and Inbee Park (2008).
She became the eighth Korean winner of the U.S. Women's Open since 2008, the 10th from her country to claim the Harton S. Semple Trophy and the 18th Korean winner in the past 36 women's majors, going back to Jiyai Shin's victory in the 2012 Women's British Open. Lee6 is the 16th player from Korea to win a women's major -- more than any other country except the U.S.
The 19th golfer to make the U.S. Women's Open her first LPGA Tour victory, Lee6 was a proven winner at home before she tested herself abroad, repeating a pattern of other Koreans such as 2017 U.S. Open winner Sung Hyun Park, who was a star in Asia prior to winning in America. Lee6 has six KLPGA victories, having won more than 1 billion Korean Won in the 2017 season, in which she had a 60 in competition.
Nothing close to that low was required for Lee6 on Sunday. Nothing typified the challenge more than 54-hole leader Celine Boutier's bookend double-bogeys on Nos. 1 and 18, the latter giving her a 75 and 281 total in a tie for fifth place with Gerina Piller, Mamiko Higa, Yu Liu and the other co-leader going into the final round, Jaye Marie Green.
At one point early Sunday afternoon, there was -- fittingly enough for the eventual champion, who was part of the pack -- a six-way tie for the lead. Lee6, who turned 23 on Tuesday, soon distinguished herself from the other contenders, who were having a hard time on the Seth Raynor-designed course.
On the par-4 12th hole, Lee6 hit her 93-yard approach 6 feet from the flagstick and made the putt for her 15th birdie of the week, which gave her the solo lead. Another wonderful wedge shot, from about 40 yards, set up another birdie from short range at the par-5 15th hole. That gave her a three-stroke cushion, and when Boutier missed a 4-foot birdie putt later on No. 16, it meant that Lee6's bogeys at Nos. 16 and 18 merely narrowed the margin instead of changing the outcome.
Asked how she would grade her performance, Boutier said, "Well, on a scale of 1 to 10, probably a 1. I feel pretty bad right now."
Boutier wasn't alone in feeling that kind of disappointment.
"At the moment, I feel like I just went through a breakup or something," Green said. "You feel like it's going to go in your favor, but that's golf. If you give me 30 minutes, I'll be able to look back and be like, 'Hey, you know, [fifth] place is a great finish in a U.S. Open.'"
Dr. Cary Middlecoff, a two-time U.S. Open champion, might have put it best: "Nobody wins the Open. It wins you."
Lee6 was only 2 years old when Se Ri Pak won the 1998 U.S. Women's Open, a victory that fueled the golf dreams of countless South Korean girls (and their parents). Lee6 developed into a world-class player despite family tragedy. Her father, Jung Ho Lee, a truck driver, was paralyzed in a highway accident when she was 4. His condition made it difficult for the family to support Jeongeun's golf.
"Looking at my family situation back then," Lee6 said through an interpreter, "I thought about wanting to play golf because I wanted to support my family no matter what. And after I became successful on the KLPGA for three years, this makes me want to play more ..."
Lee6 won the inaugural LPGA Q-Series late last year, edging Jennifer Kupcho by one stroke. In eight LPGA events prior to the Open, Lee6 hadn't finished worse than tied for 26th, and she lost in a playoff at the LPGA Mediheal event in San Francisco.
Through her interpreter, manager Jennifer Kim, Lee6 said her lack of English fluency kept her from fully understanding golf instructor Hank Haney's dismissive pre-tournament comments about Koreans' LPGA dominance.
"I didn't really think about it," said Lee6, who is projected to climb to fifth in the Rolex Rankings. "All I've been doing was just focusing on this major championship, and I just wanted to play well."
Mission accomplished, Lee6 had a modest splurge in mind, despite the huge payday.
"My goal was if I win the tournament, I can eat ramen," she said. "If I finish top-five, I can buy shoes. But I can buy shoes and eat ramen. So it's a double."